I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys (Paperback)

I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys By Miranda Seymour Cover Image

I Used to Live Here Once: The Haunted Life of Jean Rhys (Paperback)

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“Enthralling.… Seymour powerfully evokes the world from which Rhys never really escaped, one of prejudice, abuse, and abuse’s shamefaced offspring, complicity.” —James Wood, The New Yorker



An intimate, profoundly moving biography of Jean Rhys, acclaimed author of Wide Sargasso Sea.


Jean Rhys is one of the most compelling writers of the twentieth century. Memories of her Caribbean girlhood haunt the four short and piercingly brilliant novels that Rhys wrote during her extraordinary years as an exile in 1920s Paris and later in England, a body of fiction—above all, the extraordinary Wide Sargasso Sea—that has a passionate following today. And yet her own colorful life, including her early years on the Caribbean island of Dominica, remains too little explored, until now.


In I Used to Live Here Once, Miranda Seymour sheds new light on the artist whose proud and fiercely solitary life profoundly informed her writing. Rhys experienced tragedy and extreme poverty, alcohol and drug dependency, romantic and sexual turmoil, all of which contributed to the “Rhys woman” of her oeuvre. Today, readers still intuitively relate to her unforgettable characters, vulnerable, watchful, and often alarmingly disaster-prone outsiders; women with a different way of moving through the world. And yet, while her works often contain autobiographical material, Rhys herself was never a victim. The figure who emerges for Seymour is cultured, self-mocking, unpredictable—and shockingly contemporary.


Based on new research in the Caribbean, a wealth of never-before-seen papers, journals, letters, and photographs, and interviews with those who knew Rhys, I Used to Live Here Once is a luminous and penetrating portrait of a fascinatingly elusive artist.



Miranda Seymour is a British biographer whose acclaimed books include biographies of Jean Rhys; Lord Byron’s wife and daughter, Annabella Milbanke and Ada Lovelace; Mary Shelley; and Ottoline Morrell. She lives in Nottinghamshire, England.
Product Details ISBN: 9781324074595
ISBN-10: 1324074590
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: April 16th, 2024
Pages: 448
Language: English
Seymour, a masterful biographer, gets to the heart of what drove the talented and tormented author of Wide Sargasso Sea.… Seymour tells her story with empathy, precision and a keen eye for the telling detail.

— Mary Ann Gwinn - Los Angeles Times

Richly detailed, exhaustively researched, and warmly sympathetic.… The biographer’s voice in I Used to Live Here Once is a steadying principle throughout the turbulent, disjointed life of Jean Rhys, corrective when necessary, at times rueful, bemused, but never intrusive or judgmental.

— Joyce Carol Oates - New York Review of Books

Slyly compelling.… The narrative has the tension of a thriller.… However precarious her existence, as she appears in this biography Rhys always maintains an obscure dominion, if not over herself, then over other people. Her intransigence, capriciousness and abiding selfishness may not be pretty, but it’s these qualities that kept her going against all the odds.
— Rachel Cooke - The Guardian

Illuminating and meticulously researched.… Reveals how her subject’s tumultuous life informed her brilliant art.
— Malcolm Forbes - The Wall Street Journal

Revelatory…based on newfound documents that shed light on the elusive Dominica-born British novelist’s ‘extraordinary and often reckless life.’
— New York Times

The best biographies marry the talents of a perceptive biographer and a complicated subject. In Miranda Seymour’s new biography of British writer Jean Rhys, readers will find a perfect match.
— Mary Ann Gwinn - Minneapolis Star Tribune

Seymour meticulously stitches Rhys’s stories to events in her life, while scrupulously maintaining the distinction Rhys herself insisted on: the women who people her fiction are not self-portraits.
— Madison Smartt Bell - American Scholar

Seymour makes a convincing case for Rhys’s intelligence and agency as an artist. The writer who emerges from these pages is not the sluttish savant of Alvarez’ fevered imagination, but a woman who fought heroically to realize her own prodigious talent and to salvage something lasting from the wreckage of her life.
— Zoë Heller - Book Post

Miranda Seymour has written a compelling and stylish new biography of Jean Rhys, whose life and work have often been cast in melancholic shadow. Seymour adds color and complexity to Rhys’s story, and suggests the haunting influence of her early years on the Caribbean island of Dominica. This is a fresh, empathetic portrait of an iconic and unconventional woman writer whose searing novels of trauma, race, gender, and exile were ahead of their time.
— Heather Clark, author of Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

The multiple guises and conflicting personae of Jean Rhys—reckless and reclusive, captivating and appalling—demand a particularly agile biographer. Miranda Seymour is ideally suited to the task. An empathetic but unsparing critic, a tenacious and resourceful researcher, and a historian of literary cultures with a novelist’s sense of the evocative detail, she has produced an enthralling biography of a haunting—and maddening—modern writer.
— Elaine Showalter, professor emerita of English, Princeton University, and author of A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing

It’s a high-wire act to hold so witty and eloquent a balance between this writer’s recklessness and diligence. The honesty too is appealing, the acknowledgement of dark places no one can fully visit.
— Lyndall Gordon, author of The Hyacinth Girl: T. S. Eliot's Hidden Muse

Brilliantly written, compulsively readable and insightful, Miranda Seymour’s biography does full justice to a remarkable and complex life.
— Pat Barker, author of The Silence of the Girls

One of Miranda Seymour’s finest biographies, this is an utterly riveting voyage into a writer’s mind. You can almost feel Jean Rhys breathing in the room, and what a ferociously complicated woman she was! I was spellbound from start to finish.
— Deborah Moggach, author of The Carer and The Black Dress

Absolute gold. A beautiful and fascinating in-depth study of how a writer works, how books emerge from a life, from messy emotions, a Caribbean island and a uniquely sensitive imagination.
— Ruth Padel, author of Daughters of The Labyrinth

Miranda Seymour’s illuminating and brilliant book shows how Jean’s life—and especially the island of Dominica—informed her genius. It goes a long way towards making the reader understand, forgive and even applaud her rage—more, it explains why so many of us loved Jean, and her books.
— Diana Melly, author of Take a Girl Like Me

Compelling.… An elegant work that provides readers with a better understanding of a beloved author’s life.
— Kirkus, starred review

Stellar.… Seymour chronicles the heroic generosity of Rhys’ friends and family, the devastating criticism that kept Rhys from publishing her work for nearly 30 years, and her late-in-life fame, sensitively portraying Rhys in all her fury and brilliance.
— Booklist, starred review